Greed and need provide grist for Hideo Nakata’s haunted-house mill in “The Incite Mill: 7 Day Death Game.” An enjoyable murder mystery, this restrained horror pic goes against the genre’s recent tendency toward excruciatingly detailed deaths, but still wants to be scary. Japanese auds, who lapped up every “Saw” installment, have forked over $14 million for “Incite Mill” since its October release, but international auds are unlikely to embrace the pic as enthusiastically. Without an increase in gore, sequels and a Stateside remake are highly unlikely.
Two stretch limos deliver 10 “psychological experiment” participants to a futuristic compound in the middle of nowhere. Lured by the promise of a hefty sum, the guinea pigs run the full gamut of types, from an arrogant medical student (Tsuyoshi Abe) and a housewife (Sawako Fuchi) to an aging alcoholic architect (Kinya Kitaoji). Unemployed slacker Yuki (Tatsuya Fujiwara) emerges as the pic’s central protag, as well as its conscience.
Herded around a table laden with food in a luxurious circular room, the participants have an expository chat before a mechanical toy Indian on the table (an overt nod to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”) announces the rules of the experiment: They will be pitted against each other, and only two participants will emerge alive with the promised cash. The contestants retire to their allocated rooms, while a 1960s-style sci-fi robot, called “Guard,” patrols the compound’s corridors looking to eliminate any rule-breakers. Like a post-WWII pacifist, Yuki makes a plea for group unity and cooperation so everyone can survive, but the discovery of the bullet-riddled body of paranoid salaryman Nishino (Masanori Ishii) ups the financial ante and the paranoia levels.
Based on a story by Honobu Yonezawa, the script will win no prizes for originality. With the exceptions of Yuki and the boozy architect, most of the characters don’t go beyond thumbnail sketches.
Forgoing the atmospherics that brought his J-horror efforts like “Ringu” and “Dark Water” to international attention, Nakata’s direction is disciplined and professional. Pic makes a half-baked attempt to extract a sociological metaphor from its setup, while its restrained approach to onscreen killing suggests a muted critique of the genre’s current excesses. Despite an inhouse arsenal that extends from nail guns to battle-axes, pic offers only mild violence; like the old-fashioned Agatha Christie puzzlers the script references, “The Incite Mill” prefers to focus on mystery rather than murderous mayhem.
Result offers relatively mild scares, though an eerie, unsettling soundtrack by Kenji Kawai raises goosebumps. Junichiro Hayashi’s lensing is pro, and set design by Iwao Saito for the compound is an agreeable blend of upper-class elegance and ’60s space-age chic.